By Koppy McFad
August 30, 2008 - 01:21
Once, it was proudly declared that "comics aren't just for kids anymore."
Now, the slogan could very well be: "comics AREN'T for kids anymore."
That may sound like hyperbole, especially at this time when both DC and Marvel comics have active lines of comics, aimed mainly at kids in the form of " Johnny DC" and Marvel Adventures.
Of course, the very fact that they actually have to segregate these "kids" lines from the rest of the books just emphasizes the fact that the majority of DC and Marvel comics are no longer suitable for children. This is certainly a major change from the old days when ALL DC and Marvel comics-- including " Swamp Thing" and " Tomb of Dracula"-- were considered suitable for kids... older, more mature and educated kids-- but kids nonetheless.
Content has much to do with this: many books rely on gore and violence that would barely qualify for a PG-13 rating in a movie. But even the style of storytelling would probably confuse most children. Editors used to work on the principle that "every comic is somebody's first." Not anymore. Today's comics are built on years of backstory and continuity that is older than most children. To make things harder, the books no longer contain footnotes or captions or other forms of exposition that inform the new reader that "kryptonite is lethal to Superman" or "J. Jonah Jameson doesn't know that one of his photographers is the very object of his hatred-- the Amazing Spider-Man!!!" This is not made easier by the decompressed storytelling techniques, where whole panels are devoted to silence and scowling superheroes. Combine this with the highly-detailed art, heavy shading and small panels of the day, which win critical raves but sacrifice clarity-- and you get a comic that is just hard to understand, even for adults.
What is even more shocking is the mentality of some fans that comics must be pushed away from kids. There are people on message boards saying they want comics to be more "mature" as if the rape of Sue Dibny wasn't enough for them. The success of "The Dark Knight" movie has gotten some people saying that all subsequent superhero movie and TV spin-offs should be similarly dark and violent. Then there are the those who are enraged (and yes, that is the proper to word to use) when they see Cartoon Network coming out with a DC superhero cartoon that is aimed at kids. The screaming over "The Batman" may have subsided but now, you have all these complaints about the coming " Brave and the Bold" series, simply because it features a non-Goddamned Batman who apparently doesn't betray his friends or force kids to eat rats.
Of course, part of the problem is that comic books are no longer found in supermarkets and grocery stores where kids could pick them up as 'impulse buys' for dimes and nickels so the comic book companies had no choice but to market their products through specialty stores-- to specialty fans, meaning adults who could take the long trip to the stores and had the big bucks to pay for comics.
But don't forget that comic books are still available outside of comic book stores. The big-name DC titles, "Superman," "Batman" and "Justice League" still pop up at news-stands and as the movies and TV shows are released, they will likely be snapped up by more kids as well. Imagine their surprise when they open "Justice League" and catch Roy Harper and Hawkgirl in bed-- or read "Teen Titans" to see Wonder Dog kill Wendy and Marvin.
As an aside, isn't it strange that some of the best comic books for kids (" Bone," " Herobear and the Kid") are harder to find than than copies of "the Punisher"?
No one is calling for a return to censorship-- not that anyone would even listen to such calls. The comics code barely has any authority nowadays. The " Teen Titans" issue where Marvin and Wendy get gobbled up was code-approved and most DC and Marvel books don't even carry that approval anymore. Still, at least the fact that they even try to get code-stamped shows that DC Comics is still trying to get kids to read. (Oddly, one of the non-code books is " Blue Beetle," a title with a youthful protagonist who looks and acts like he should be marketed to kids.)
But maybe someone at the BIG TWO should think about how to get kids back into comics-- not just on the kids imprint but on the "faces" of the company-- Superman, Batman, etc. Besides, it isn't like comic companies aren't trying to make their characters more popular among kids. Go to any department store and you will see toys, T-shirts, shoes and lunch boxes with Superman, Batman, Spider-Man Iron Man, the Hulk and Wolverine (yes, Wolverine) on them. Some of these items are being marketed to really young children-- four to six year olds.
There is an audience and a market: J.K. Rowling becoming one of the richest women in England is proof of that. Mainstream comics are still trying to find a way to reach that audience and market. But for now, they struggle to sell even 30,000 copies of a comic title that used to sell eight times that many in the 1960s.
The distribution and marketing problems probably require more drastic solutions but as for writing the comics to make them entertaining for both kids and adults, that is hardly some lost mystic art. DC can just look through their recent archive editions and see how Bill Finger, John Broome and company did it, way back when. Heck, many of the old-school writers are still out there and they probably need the work.
This is probably all just a rant from an old-time fan who still wishes it were 1976 or 1967 or 1963 again, when we still had the Super-pets and Wonder-tot around. But at least in those days, readers had more of a choice. They had fairly mature tales in titles like " Jonah Hex" or " House of Secrets" but could still enjoy wacky hi-jinks in the pages of " Jimmy Olsen." Even Marvel, the "cool" comic company of that era didn't show people being murdered wholesale (much less by heroes turned cannibalistic zombies) There should be a place for both the mature stories and the lighter, more accessible fare. Comic books, especially those of the superhero genre, by their very nature, with their fantastic characters and outlandish plots, will always have a natural appeal to children. Who else would believe in people in long underwear performing superhuman feats? So why shouldn't the comic book companies find ways to exploit this appeal?
Besides, I'm pretty sure virtually every fan out there learned to love comics when he/she was still a kid. Did anyone out there really start reading comics at age 25 because he saw "Batman Forever" in the theaters?